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Number of Net surfers soars

The number of North Americans with access to the Internet increased by 50 percent between September 1995 and April 1996, and the newbies aren't like the Netizens already here.

The number of North Americans with access to the Internet increased by 50 percent in the seven months between September 1995 and April 1996, according to a just-released study, and the newbies aren't like the Netizens already here.

Net newcomers are not the early adopters of technology but a broader, less affluent swath of the population, according to a Nielsen Media Research study released today in conjunction with CommerceNet, a consortium that promotes Internet commerce.

"Internet access and use are becoming increasingly mainstream," senior vice president of Nielsen Media Research David Harkness said. "While Internet users still tend to be upscale, their overall characteristics are coming more in line with general population averages."

That demographic shift will boost commerce handled over the Net, according to CommerceNet executive director Asim Abdullah. "This type of broadening, exponential growth is unprecedented. Clearly, a huge market exists for electronic commerce," he said.

The current survey is the second from Nielsen-CommerceNet. The first generated considerable controversy over methodology, particularly among academics. Following critics' suggestions, the latest survey used different methodologies.

Surveys of Internet usage have produced widely divergent numbers, and the disagreements over Nielsen's methodology had marred the reputation of the Nielsen-CommerceNet studies.

But Nielsen's name carries credence among advertisers who rely on Nielsen TV ratings, and CommerceNet has gained important stature among companies interested in developing e-commerce applications, so the changes in methodology may boost acceptance of the new study's figures.

The latest survey found:
-- 22 to 24 percent of people 16 or older in Canada and the United States have access to the Internet, a 50 percent increase since August 1995.
-- 5 to 6 percent of North Americans use the Net daily, 11 to 12 percent weekly, and 15 to 16 percent have used it in the past six months.

Among the tallied Net users, the CommerceNet-Nielsen study distinguished between long-time users (those who had used the Net prior to August 1995) and those who began using the Net after that date.

An executive summary of survey results is available on both Nielsen's and CommerceNet's Web sites. Complete details of both the first and second studies cost $5,000, although academics pay a reduced price of $500.